An online magazine asked me to create a seven-part history of how I became a published writer. I decided to post them here first, one per week. Here is installment #5:
Written by Alan Chin
I had confidently thought that once my debut novel, Island Song, had been signed with a publisher, even a small independent publisher like Zumaya Publications, I could relax and not worry about being the unknown quantity any more. I mean, I had a contract, and a soon-to-be a published book. Didn’t that raise me above the hordes of faceless, nameless writers who keep beating their heads against the wall? Shouldn’t that open doors previously closed to me? Shouldn’t that make people sit up and take notice? Ha! That should tell you how naive I was, not to mention full of myself. The term green as grass is no mere cliché.
I started my second novel, The Lonely War, before the ink had dried on that Zumaya Publications contract for my first novel. It took me roughly two years to write, edit and polish; yet it was finished long before Island Song was published. You see, Zumaya is a very small shop trying to publish twenty-five or more books per year. There were a few dozen books in the queue ahead of mine, and only one person to slog through the backlog of editing, preparing, organizing cover art, publishing, marketing, attracting new talent and writing checks. One of the hardest lessons to learn in indie publishing is that nothing happens quickly. Nothing.
My second manuscript, a gay love story that spans WWII, starts on a US Destroyer, moves to a Japanese POW camp (Changi), and ends in Japan after the war. I was aware at the time of writing that many readers are not interested in war historicals. But I felt compelled to make a statement about gays in the military, and this particular setting and time frame gave me exactly the set of circumstances I needed for my premise.
So armed with my two-year-old contract and a new manuscript, I began sending out query letters—about forty of them—to all the larger publishers, believing that they would take me seriously this time. As with my first novel, most of them merely ignored my letters. Some were kind enough to send a standard rejection note. As the rejection notices piled up, my confidence nosedived. Keep in mind I am an openly gay man writing uplifting stories about gay protagonists for a gay audience. That dramatically limited the number publishers and literary agents interested in handling my work.
In the end, I sent the manuscript to Zumaya Publications, knowing that it would be years before being published. They accepted the manuscript and sent a second contract.
Now I had two novels to be published. The first in mid 2008, the second in late 2009. Of course I would have preferred a larger, more prestigious publisher, but regardless I was thrilled about publishing two books and starting on a third—Match Maker.
At about the same time Zumaya began editing my Island Song manuscript, they also contracted with an artist to create the cover art. I sent some ideas to the artist, including a mockup of a cover my husband, Herman, had produced. As far as I was concerned, Herman’s mockup was a perfect cover. However what came back turned out to be, in my humble opinion, hideously ugly. I put my foot down, and I went back and forth for two weeks with the publisher trying to forge a better cover. At one point, the publisher told me they were cutting me out of the conversation. They had full rights to design whatever cover they deemed suitable, and I would make due with what they produced.
I can tell you with no hint of exaggeration that I simply loathed that original cover. It drove a wedge between me and my publisher that never really repaired itself. If I had not already signed that second contract, I would have not taken a chance on Zumaya again. I felt that strongly about it.
But soon after, I held my first published book in my hands. It was an amazing feeling that literally moved me to tears. A seed planted in 2001 finally gave fruit in late 2008. Even with that hideous cover, I loved it. And for the next year, I learned, not too successfully, the other side of the publishing coin—marketing.
But more about marketing in the next installment. For now, let me say that for I year I struggled to get my name out there so people would buy my book. When it came time for Zumaya Publications to produce my second novel, to my great surprise, they gave me a cover that I loved. Loved it then, and still do. I’m very proud of The Lonely War—both the story and the cover—and very grateful to Zumaya Publications for the superior job they did in publishing it.